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MPs blamed for stoking culture war over Australia Day

Kat Wong -

Australians are becoming less attached to January 26, but politicians aren't, leading some MPs to dominate the culture war in a way that doesn't reflect public sentiment, an expert says.

The yearly debate has reignited after Opposition Leader Peter Dutton called on Australians to boycott Woolworths when the supermarket giant revealed it would not sell Australia Day-themed merchandise because of declining sales.

Mr Dutton last week condemned the move as an "outrage" born from Woolworths' "woke agenda" and said most Australians likely thought the same.

A public holiday helps people celebrate Australia Day on January 26 each year. (Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS)

But Australian Catholic University sociology lecturer Rachel Busbridge says this may not be the case.

She said there had been a general shift towards support for changing the date with only half of Australians celebrating, which is very different to the dynamic presented by politicians.

"We see a lot of polarisation from that top level of politics (and) it tends to come from the right side," Dr Busbridge said.

"But when we look at people's attitudes on the ground, it's a lot less polarised.

"We can see a slow but steady drift towards recognising that the day is a bit problematic for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and if we want to all celebrate together, then that may mean we have to find another day."

Though First Nations Australians have a long history of leading Invasion or Survival Day protests focused on January 26, the day only became a federal public holiday in 1994.

Since then it has come under increasing scrutiny.

Many local councils have chosen not to hold celebrations on January 26 or hold alternate events that acknowledge colonial legacies.

The Australia Day Council of NSW will host a dawn reflection where the Opera House sails will be illuminated with First Nations art.

In 2023, the Victorian government axed its Australia Day parade, opting instead for a flag-raising ceremony and gun salute at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.

Peter Dutton wants people to boycott Woolies because it won't sell Australia Day-themed merchandise. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)

There has also been a slow trickle of companies - such as Woolworths, Aldi and Kmart - drifting from the celebration, though this is likely a response to Australians spending elsewhere rather than corporate leadership, Dr Busbridge says.

"If there's really no demand for these types of items, then I don't know the extent to which the politicisation and outrage that comes along is really reflective of public sentiment."

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has slammed Mr Dutton for his "extraordinary overreach".

"I find it bizarre that the so-called party of the free market is calling for a boycott," he told 2HD radio on Tuesday.

"If everyone boycotted Woolworths, 200,000 people would lose their jobs."

A spokesperson from Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance, an organiser of the Melbourne Invasion Day rally, welcomed the changing public opinion.

"This date isn't a day of celebration, it marks the beginning of Aboriginal people losing our land, families and lives and it's a stain on Australia that we celebrate this," the spokesperson said.

"It's great to see the shift and we hope that more places can listen to the calls for justice."

Queensland Police on Tuesday said a 40-year-old man had been charged with wilful damage after a Woolworths store in the Brisbane suburb of Teneriffe was tagged with pro-Australia Day graffiti.

Kat Wong - AAP

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